Mule deer have faced a nationwide beat-down for more than a decade. But it’s not all doom and gloom, even in the most troubled muley country. Get off the road, put your glass to work and you’re bound to discover some big-eared brown beasts.
If you want to make the most efficient use of your time afield—whether it’s spent hunting for trophy-class bucks or high-odds venison—it pays to do your homework.
After a week of digging through data and playing phone tag with a dozen state wildlife biologists, here are some not-so-hot muley spots I discovered that you might want to avoid.
Sixty years ago, approximately 45,000 mule deer wintered at Devil’s Garden in northeastern California’s Modoc County. Today, the wintering herd is estimated at somewhere between 2,500-4,500. In this case, nature is the primary culprit for destroying deer numbers.
“We have a lot of issues here in northeastern California,” said California wildlife biologist Richard Shinn. “The huge expansion of western juniper has had a lot of negative effects on native shrubs and grasses. If you look at a dense stand of juniper, there’s nothing growing underneath it—just dirt.” Not good for muleys … or just about anything with a heartbeat.
Other non-native vegetation such as cheatgrass and medusahead have also swarmed the landscape, overtaking valuable native shrubs such as sagebrush. These exotic plants are essentially worthless for mule deer, but they’re like an all-you-can-eat fuel buffet for wildfires.
“Fires are much more frequent now,” noted Shinn. “These invasive grasses are extremely flammable. Native shrubs can’t handle fire very well, but the grasses can. This causes large-scale changes in the habitat because the grasses are so successful.”
California manages their mule deer hunters accordingly, relying on a preference point system to limit pressure on deer. According to Shinn, about 70 percent of Modoc County is composed of public land, so access isn’t an issue if you draw a tag.
Despite the low deer numbers and obvious concerns over habitat loss, Shinn offered some optimism: “I’ve hunted a lot of Western states, but the biggest buck I’ve ever seen was here (in Modoc County). There is still good hunting to be had here, especially if you’re willing to put in the time and effort.”
With a stable mule deer population, high buck-to-doe ratios and ample public land, the Gunnison Basin remains a coveted area to draw a deer tag. However, some surrounding areas aren’t doing so well.
“We’re not happy with the deer herd performance around Montrose, the San Juan Basin and San Luis Valley,” explained Colorado wildlife biologist Scott Wait. “Fawn recruitment has been low, therefore the populations are below or at the low end of our objectives range.”
Trouble is, there are a swath of factors negatively impacting the herds. It’s difficult to point to one or even just a few culprits and put a bandage on the wound. That’s why a statewide “Mule Deer Strategy” initiative is in progress this year. Scientific research and input from seven public hearings will be analyzed in August, at which time the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission will offer guidance for proactive measures to counter the mule deer decline.
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